The word apocalypse always conjures up a sense of disaster and violent catastrophe in the popular mind. The nuclear war, the dreadful deluge, the defeated ruins and the smoking wilderness.
I won’t say this is wrong, but it is interesting because it is not really what the word itself means. The word is greek, made up of kalypso – meaning, to cover or veil – and the prefix apo – which negates whatever follows. Apo-Kalypso: to un-cover.
Apocalypse in the Biblical imagination
There’s a preoccupation toward the uncovering, unveiling and revealing of things right through the biblical imagination. The sons and daughters of God are waiting to be revealed. The anger of God against the evil that mars the world is being revealed. The earth itself will be uncovered. Everything seems to draw ever toward the uncovering of what is very much there, but as yet unseen. What is among us, but hidden. All history moves toward the revealing and liberating of things, in their truest presence.
The term apocalypse is of course most readily associated with the writers of those most mad and frightening biblical texts: Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Revelation. And whatever else may be claimed about these texts, we may truthfully say that they are works of literature. They were crafted by remarkable writers and poets, very much for the purpose of revealing the veiled truths of their own moments of history.
They undo the common human work of hiding the truths which seem dreadful and strange to us (or, to some of us, at least). We might expect it to be the merciless rationalist who goes about bursting the illusions and pointing to the facts – and sometimes it is. But often enough, this task has fallen to those who appear to be fantasists and flaneurs of the imagination, to bring within reach the truths that fester strange and obscure under our neat systems, and structures and fabrications.
When the apocalypticists wish to speak of what is hidden under the “Roman Peace” they give vile images of many-headed dragons. When they wish to speak of what is hidden beneath Roman economics they give images of pale horses of poverty and famine. When they wish to speak of what is hidden beneath Roman cultural imperialism they give images of bodies forcibly tattooed with marks of allegiance.
We can hear facts and figures all day about the men, women and children killed in other lands on the other end of the arms sales that keep the British economy “healthy”. We can hear facts and figures about the period of mass animal extinction we’re presently living through. Our resilience to terrifying facts is amazing. It will often fall to the work of artists and prophets to create spaces in which the hidden realities may really be felt, known, and grieved.
Tearing holes in the social veneer
I recently learned that in medieval times the word discovery meant something more like treachery. It meant to dis-cover (or un-veil, or reveal) what was really going on. To uncover the truth that everyone would really rather remained unseen. (Only after Christopher Columbus kicked off a century, and more, of mass genocide in the Americas did the word pick up its present optimistic resonance). And the apocalypticist is indeed the traitor. Their art is an act of cultural violence against the present order of things. It tears holes in the carefully woven veneer. Whether the work is writ large or small, its message to the powers that cover over and dominate tends to sound something like, “not one stone shall be left upon another.” If the word apocalypse is associated with catastrophe, there are reasons. No wonder the prophets and the artists tend to situate themselves on the edges of things… free enough from the demands of the centre to commit their dreadful and treasonous acts of unveiling.
There are many reasons artists work. One of these (and just one) is the work of treachery – the apocalyptic impulse, to reveal what it hidden and to hold space where those things might be seen, heard, smelled, touched and tasted… where they might become known, and re-integrated, toward the healing of all things.